Monday, September 21, 2020

Review: Annual Exhibition 2020 of the Royal Society of Portrait Painters

It's rather odd writing this review - because the first half of my review Annual Exhibition 2020 of the Royal Society of Portrait Painters was written back in May 2020 when it looked as if there was a good chance the annual exhibition would be online only.

Instead of which the portraits remained in the Vaults of the Mall Galleries between February and September but are now out and having an airing on the walls of the Mall Galleries.

The Annual Exhibition of the Royal Society of Portrait Painters at the Mall Galleries

Back in May I commented on:

  • bigger number of entries: the fact the number of entries to this open exhibition (very nearly 2.5k) EXCEEDED the number who applied to the BP Portrait
  • a bigger exhibition - with artwork from 82 non members exhibited alongside some of the leading portrait painters in the UK (you can read the names in that blog post)
  • 10 paintings I chose to highlight - which did not disappoint when I saw them in the Gallery yesterday.
Plus I highlighted the names of all 82 artists who had a portrait accepted for the exhibition via the open entry.

Below I'm going to highlight

You can also see some of my PHOTOS of the exhibition in the album Royal Society of Portrait Painters: Annual Exhibition 2020 on my Facebook Page

Also if you go to the Facebook Page of the Royal Society of Portrait Painters you can read about a lot of the stories behind the portraits and how they came about. 

Paintings I liked - and other comments

Here are some of the painting which made me linger more than most.

Two paintings by Simon Davies grabbed my attention - partly because of the composition and partly because how they were painted but mainly because they had impact.  

  • the one on the left caught my attention because of the hands and kept it because of the brushwork
  • the one on the right reminded me of ex RSPP President Daphne Todd's painting which won the BP Portrait Award - and this was indeed the same sort of topic - except this one is of the day before his father died (rather than after her mother died).  There's something compulsive about the need to record someone you were close to when they are dying - and there's nothing more poignant than knowing this is the last time ever that you will be able to do so.

Two paintings by Simon Davies
( Left) Ching-Ying

Two portraits of English actor, comedian, screenwriter and novelist Mark Gatiss were hung next to one another. Mark Gatiss is also a very keen portrait artist and featured in one episode of Sky Arts Portrait Artist of the Year in 2019 as a sitter - and then came back for the Celebrity version in 2019 - and you can see him in my photos of that event (links are to my blog posts about these)   

I preferred the one on the right - which had a quirky aspect to it which seemed to me to be more like Gatiss himself. 

Two portraits of Mark Gatiss by (Left) Alex Tzavaras and (right) Jane French

This is a video about the two portraits

I'm really not a fan of the "stuffed shirt" type of portrait and very rarely comment on them - unless there is something exceptional about them. Hence it really takes "something" to make me stop and look more carefully.

Which is what Mark Roscoe achieved very easily with his oil painting of Sir Brian Leveson - who I watched for many hours while following the Leveson Inquiry. He positively popped off the wall at me and was so lifelike, it felt like he was just the other side of the frame. I was absolutely amazed by the sheer sense of "presence".

Unfortunately I can't see his website as Apple blocks Flash Player and I gather the website is currently being rebuilt minus Flash - but Covid has taken a toll on the timeline. If you're in the same position as me you can see a page about Mark Roscoe on the RP website instead.

Interestingly his Twitter account makes clear that the Lord Mayor of London became known as the smiling Mayor - so "portrait painter protocol" was broken - and he was given a smile!

 (right) Sir Peter Estlin, Lord Mayor of London
by Mark Roscoe RP

The centre of the far wall in the West Gallery was anchored by The Climate Cafe by Jeff StultiensThis is a most unusual painting and I simply didn't get the meaning - until I saw the faces on the wall. So do you know who the people are who are portrayed?

The Climate Cafe by Jeff Stultiens

I always like studying the portraits included in the Portrait Drawings Wall - which is invariably in the North Gallery.

This year this wall includes a wide range of approaches but two drawings which got my attention were two hyperrealistic portraits - because I like looking to see how they got the effects.

Wall of Portrait Drawings (North Gallery)

The first was this portrait - in pen and ink on paper - by Jingfeng Li (which is incorrectly listed as pencil and charcoal in the catalogue).  Jingfeng was born in Anshan, Liaoning Province, China, graduated from Lu Xun Academy of Fine Arts.  He's previously exhibited a landscape drawing - in pen and ink - at the Royal Society of British Artists Annual Exhibition 2019

It's the use of a thin black line to create such a rich mixture of textures and tonalities which is so very impressive to me (I'm also a big fan of drawing in pen and ink - but have never got anywhere near this level of refinement).

A Woman in a Phoenix Robe by Jingfeng Li
pen and ink

The second was by Joshua Waterhouse - who also won one of the prizes (see below). This drawing in pencil MUST be seen to appreciate his technique.

Joshua started his studies with a Foundation in Art & Design at Edinburgh College of Art, before studying Fine Art at the University of Aberystwyth, where he graduated in 2014 with a First Class Honours. Joshua also spent a year in Paris studying Art History at the Sorbonne (Paris IV).

He's very definitely one to watch. He's doing a great job of being in touch with art history and combining old and new in terms of his overall approach to both media and techniques - and is producing some excellent work as a result. 

I was a tad bothered about the small portraits this year and it took some time to work out that what I was noticing was an absence - what was NOT there!

Small portraits on the mezzanine wall. 

The small portraits seemed to me to lack colour this year. Going small does not mean you need to go monochrome or very nearly! At a little distance they all begin to merge somewhat - at which point I notice the blue hair, the dark red frame, the green cardigan and the scarlet shirt.  

One only needs to ponder on some small portraits which have attracted comment over the years/decades/centuries (see example 25.5 × 19cm / 10x7 inches ) to maybe wonder whether another approach might work better.....

This wall does however include 
  • a portrait by Steve Caldwell, an artist who was selected for the BP Portrait Award 2020. 
  • the portrait which won the small portrait award (top row just left of centre - and below)
By way of contrast, one of my followers commented that this (below) was a really colourful wall of portraits (in the North Gallery)

Portraits can be colourful and contemporary too!


The exhibition aims to be

A celebration of the very best in contemporary portraiture nationally and internationally

The Ondaatje Prize for Portraiture

£10,000, plus the Society’s Gold Medal awarded for the most distinguished portrait in the Society’s annual exhibition

Woman in a Stadtische Galerie (German woman in a municipal gallery) by Shuang Liu

"The work expresses the sitter's inherent persistent spirit and conveys the vicissitudes of time. The dress is a reflection of contemporary tradition work uses traditional European techniques to express an elderly woman who lived in Germany during World War. 
I am totally bemused by this award. It's undoubtedly a very good oil painting BUT:
  • why is it glazed? It's impossible to see properly due to the reflections. Somehow while I'm prepared to accept reflections in watercolour paintings because of the necessity of glazing them for conservation purposes, I can find no good reason for glazing oil paintings - unless museum glass is used - and reflections disappear!
  • why is it a frame which is not of the type usually considered appropriate for this exhibition
To me the top award for a portrait needs to for a portrait which ALSO meets standards for presentation as well as painting - otherwise we're all going to end up seeing a lot more glazed oil paintings entered into art competitions!!!

Shuang Liu is 38 and lives in Shanghai. It's very difficult to find out anything about him on the internet as it appears he does not have a website. What I did find out is that he:
  • studied at the School of Fine Arts, Shanghai University receiving a master’s degree and is is a member of the Shanghai Artists Association. 
  • was awarded a Certificate of Excellence award winner in the 21st International Portrait Competition in 2019 (as reported in Underpaintings)
  • has a painting selected for the BP Portrait Award 2020.

The de Laszlo Foundation Award

£3,000 plus a Silver Medal for the most outstanding portrait by an artist aged 35 years or under
Nneka Uzoigwe Lily Before the Play
"A portrait painted from life of the wonderful Lily Holder prepared to go on stage."
Nneka Uzoigwe is 30 and lives in London.

I confess I failed to find this portrait in the exhibition - and I'm still trying to work out where it was as I totally missed it.  I'm a great believer in moving prizewinning paintings to a more obvious place after the hang is complete!

Prince of Wales's Award for Portrait Drawing

£2,000 and framed certificate for a portrait in any recognised drawing medium was awarded to 
Jack Freeman for his charcoal drawing titled Walkie Talkie

Walkie Talkie by Jack Freeman
Pencil & Charcoal 37 x 28 (52 x 42 cm framed)

"I made this drawing of Patricia after a walk through Grantchester near Cambridge. The evening light made the scene particularly poignant. I wanted to capture the feeling of a walk, late in the day, through countryside, and I think the smokey blackness of the charcoal - particularly as it works into this handmade paper gives the picture a grainy sentimentality."
Jack Freeman is 26 and lives in Cambridge. His work was also selected for the BP Portrait award in 2018.

The Burke’s Peerage Foundation Award for Classically Inspired Portraiture

The Burke’s Peerage Foundation Award, established by its founders William Bortrick and Mark Ayre in 2015, is presented for Classically Inspired Portraiture in the RP Annual Exhibition. It is presented each year with a certificate and a cheque for £2,000.

Joshua Waterhouse is 31 and lives in London, won the De Lazlo Award last year and it surely can only be a matter of time before he is elected to membership of the RSPP - assuming he's applied to be a candidate!  He also (see above) produced an absolutely stunning graphite drawing which also is on display within the Exhibition.

This year he won this award with a portrait study of Dame Glynis Breakwell

Dame Glynis Breakwell by Joshua Waterhouse

I say study because there is a much larger portrait - which he is varnishing in this Facebook Video. This is the video of him varnishing this portrait

As you will appreciate by now I'm a big fan of artists who share their work processes - and videos with us!

In the video below Joshua talking about his painting - but it really suffers from having been recorded from too far away and without a directional microphone - at a time when there was a lot of background noise. 

(Note: If you've seen some of my interviews with BP Portrait Award winners, you'll have noted it's 'very up close and personal' and the reason is that it's the ONLY way to get the sound at an acceptable level if there's background noise and you're not equipped with full professional kit - and the sidekick to carry it around for you!!). You might want to note this if you ever want to have a go yourself!)


Smallwood Architects Prize

£1,000 for a portrait in which architectural or interior features play an important part

Sandancer by Steven Wood

The award goes to Sandancer by Steven Wood who is 60, lives in South Shields and paints in both watercolour and oils - and is one of an incredibly small number of artists whose websites includes artworks for blind people.  Steven was also one of the wildcard artists in Gateshead last year during the Landscape Artist of the Year 2019. 
"Sandancer is the name used to describe those who come from the town of South Shields, Tyne & Wear although the term is hardly known by anyone outside the local area. The sitter Julie Kassim on one of the different beaches in South Shields a place called Frenchman’s Cove, scattered around the painting are symbolic symbols of runes which represents her spirituality and beliefs in the supernatural and white magic. The image is place in landscape form giving the viewer a sense of floating above her."
HOWEVER - I don't want to take anything away from the artwork - BUT could somebody please explain to me why a painting of a girl on a beach fits with the criteria for this award? Do the Judges not pay any attention to the stated criteria as stipulated by sponsors? These are architects - the portrait - as indicated by the criteria needs to involve a BUILDING OR INTERIOR!!!

It really does NOT help - in terms of attracting more sponsors - to ignore the criteria for a prize - especially when these are carefully identified in the catalogue!

The RP Award

The sitter holds a small mobile she made, it represents the solar system. She has unsettled it and is straightening the threads.
The painting is about mental health and emphasises the need to stay in the present.

The RP Award

The RP Prize for the Best Small Portrait

Studio Portrait by Robbie Wraith RP

and finally......

Interestingly, I think my increased use of online 'virtual' exhibitions during lockdown means that I now get irritated when a website do not provide the functionality I want - such as being able to identify artwork in the online exhibition by:
  • name of artist
  • title of the artwork
I also always feel it's really very unfair to the artists at the end of a long list of pages as, like search results on Google, it's very unlikely everybody is going to get to the end.  This might also be something to do with the fact my surname begins with T!

I think that maybe the time has come for the The Mall Galleries to upgrade its online exhibitions for the art societies to provide a much better arrangement which allows people to search for artwork online - by artist and title.  Much as they can already do in relation to Artist Explorer function.


The Annual Exhibition of the Royal Society of Portrait Artists:

More about Past Annual Exhibitions


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